The cognitive short-circuit of 'artificial consciousness'

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

The new sci-fi film Ex_Machina has been teasing back into the cultural dialogue dreams of artificial consciousness: the idea that we humans, through the Faustian power of technology, can birth into being mechanisms capable of inner life, subjectivity and affection. Since these dreams are entirely based on implicit assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality at large, I thought a few observations would be opportune.

The first thing to notice is the difference between artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. The former entails the ability to process information in ways that we consider intelligent. In particular, an intelligent machine should be capable of constructing an internal, symbolic representation of its environment so to interact coherently with it. We can test whether a machine is intelligent or not purely by observing its behavior in the environment. Alan Turing's famous test aims precisely at that. However, none of the symbolic information processing in an intelligent machine needs to be accompanied by inner experience. It can all happen totally 'in the dark.' As such, an intelligent machine is, for all intents and purposes, simply a glorified calculator. There isn't anything it is like to be the machine.

In conscious machines, on the other hand, the idea is that those internal calculations are accompanied by subjective inner experience, or inner life. In other words, there must be something it feels like, from the point of view of the machine itself, to perform the calculations. This is a whole different ballgame than mere artificial intelligence. Moreover, there is absolutely no way to definitively test whether a machine is conscious or not, since all we can ever hope to access is its architecture and behavior. Short of becoming the machine at least for a brief moment, we cannot know whether there is anything it is like to be it.

What makes so many computer engineers believe in the possibility of artificial consciousness? Let us deconstruct and make explicit their chain of reasoning.

They start by making – whether they are aware of it or not – certain key assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality. To speak of creating consciousness in a machine one must assume consciousness to be, well, 'creatable.' Something can only be created if it wasn't there in the first place. In other words, engineers assume that consciousness isn't the primary aspect of reality, but a secondary effect generated by particular arrangements of matter. Matter itself is assumed to exist outside and independent of consciousness.

Next, they imagine that if they can mimic, in a machine, the particular flow of information characteristic of our own brains, then the machine will be conscious like us. This is best exemplified by the work of Pentti Haikonen, who devised what is probably the cleverest machine architecture so far aimed at artificial consciousness [Haikonen, P. O. (2003). The Cognitive Approach to Conscious Machines. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic]. In my book Rationalist Spirituality I summarized Haikonen's work as follows:
His greatest insight has been that the human brain is but a correlation-finding and association-performing engine. All the brain does is to try and find correlations between mental symbols of perception and capture these correlations in symbol associations performed by neurons. In his artificial “brain”, these associations are performed by artificial associative neurons. All symbols in Haikonen’s artificial brain architecture are ultimately linked, perhaps through a long series of associations, to perceptual signals from sensory mechanisms. This grounds all symbol associations to perceived things and events of the external world, which gives those associations their semantic value. In this framework, the explanations derived by the brain are just a series of symbol associations linking two past events. The predictions derived by the brain are just extrapolated symbol association chains. (Page 48.)
There are, however, many problems and internal contradictions in the engineers' reasoning. For instance, for Haikonen's machine to be conscious there must already be, from the start, a basic form of consciousness inherent in the basic components of the machine. Although he talks of 'creating' consciousness, what he proposes is actually a system for accruing and complexifying consciousness: by linking bits of matter in complex ways, the 'bits of consciousness' supposedly inherent in them are associated together so to build up a complex subjective inner life comparable to yours or mine. Naturally, for this to work it must be the case that there are these 'bits of consciousness' already inherent in every bit of matter, otherwise nothing accrues: you can associate zeros with zeros all you like, at the end you will still be left with precisely zero. So unless consciousness is a property of every bit of matter – a highly problematic philosophical position called panpsychism – all those symbol associations in Haikonen's architecture won't be accompanied by experience, no matter how complex the machine. Haikonen will perhaps have built an intelligent machine, but not a conscious one.

Notice that panpsychism – the notion that all matter is conscious – entails, for instance, that your home thermostat is conscious. Allegedly it has a very simple form of consciousness incomparable to mine or yours, but nonetheless there is still something it is like to be your home thermostat. The same applies to your vacuum cleaner, your ballpoint pen, the chair you're sitting on, a rock, etc. Literally everything is supposedly conscious under panpsychism, having its own private, subjective inner life. As I wrote in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney,
The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property – namely, consciousness – which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it – namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature. (Page 19)
Insofar as we have no empirical reason to believe that a rock is conscious to any degree whatsoever, we have no reason to believe that Haikonen's machine is conscious. You see, the mere mimicking, in a computer, of the type of information processing that unfolds in the human brain is no reason whatsoever to believe that the computer is conscious. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to make my point clear: I can simulate in a computer all the chemical reactions that take place in human kidneys. Yet, this is no reason to believe that the computer will start peeing on my desk. A simulation of the phenomenon isn't the phenomenon.

Some argue that panpsychism isn't necessary to validate the possibility of artificial consciousness. They argue that consciousness is a property only of the brain as a whole, somehow created by its complex network of information associations, not of individual bits of matter. Indeed, as discussed in my book Brief Peeks Beyond,
Some neuroscientists and philosophers speculate that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain. ‘Emergence’ happens when a higher-level property arises from complex interactions of lower-level entities. For instance, the fractal patterns of snowflakes are emergent properties of complex interactions of water molecules. But to merely state that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain is rather a cop-out than an explanation. In all known cases of emergence, we can deduce the emergent property from the characteristics of the lower-level entities that give rise to it. For instance, we can deduce the fractal shape of snowflakes from the characteristics of water molecules. We can even accurately simulate the formation of snowflakes in a computer. However, we cannot – not even in principle – deduce what it feels to see red, to be disappointed or to love someone from the mass, charge or momentum of material particles making up the brain. As such, to consider consciousness an emergent property of brains is either an appeal to magic or the mere labeling of an unknown. In both cases, precisely nothing is actually explained. (Page 59)
Again, we have no reason to believe that computers can give rise to consciousness; only to intelligence.

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The biggest problem with the notion of artificial consciousness is the assumption that, in nature, consciousness is somehow subordinate to matter. Otherwise, what sense would there be in attempting to create human-like consciousness by engineering matter? Indeed, under panpsychism, consciousness is seen as just one of many properties of matter, like mass, charge, momentum, etc. Matter is allegedly primary, consciousness being just a property of matter. Under the emergentist hypothesis just discussed, consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon of matter: an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of atoms in the brain, just like a snowflake is an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of water molecules. Yet, if we are true and honest to the most basic fact of existence, we must grant that consciousness is primary, not subordinate to matter. Again from Brief Peeks Beyond:
Consciousness – whatever it may intrinsically be – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure. It is the one undeniable empirical fact of existence. After all, what can we really know that isn’t experienced in some form, even if only through instrumentation or the reports of others? If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist. Because all knowledge resides in consciousness, we cannot know what is supposedly outside consciousness; we can only infer it through our capacity for abstraction. (Page 12)
In my work, I propose a coherent and rigorous philosophical system wherein all aspects of reality are explained as excitations of consciousness, consciousness itself being the primary, fundamental medium of all existence. If that is the case, there is absolutely no sense in talking about creating consciousness, since consciousness is already there from the start. It is what there is. It can't be created for it is that within which all creations unfold.

According to my system, reality unfolds in one stream of subjectivity that I call 'mind-at-large.' We, human beings, are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large, much in the same way that a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder has multiple, disjoint, apparently separate personalities. We seem to share the same reality because the empirical world is merely what collective mental processes, unfolding outside our individual alter in the broader stream of mind-at-large, look like from our dissociated perspective. In other words, the world is an image: the experiential perception by an alter of mental processes outside the alter. I summarized this idea in an earlier, short essay that I encourage you to peruse.

As such, what we call 'conscious entities' are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large. An image of that dissociation is a human body. And insofar as we have empirical reason to infer that other animals are also conscious in ways similar to ourselves – that is, insofar as they also have private, subjective inner lives – their bodies, too, are images of this cosmic dissociation. Going further down the chain of biological complexity, it isn't unreasonable to infer that metabolism itself – that process common to all life – is the most basic image of dissociative processes in mind-at-large.

Therefore, our feeble attempts to engineer an entity with a private, subjective inner life similar to our own aren't really attempts to create consciousness. Instead, they are attempts to induce dissociation in mind-at-large, so to create alters analogous to ourselves.

Based on this understanding, do we have any reason whatsoever to believe that the mere mimicking of the information flow in human brains, no matter how accurate, will ever lead to a new dissociation of mind-at-large? The answer to this question can only be 'yes' if you think the kidney simulation can make the computer urinate. You see, if the only known image of dissociation is metabolism – that is, life – the only reasonable way to go about artificially creating an alter of mind-at-large is to replicate metabolism itself. For all practical purposes, dissociation is metabolism; there is no reason to believe it is anything else. As such, the quest for artificial consciousness is, in fact, one and the same with the quest for creating life from non-life; or abiogenesis.

The computer engineer's dream of birthing a conscious child into the world without the messiness and fragility of life is an infantile delusion; a confused, partial, distorted projection of archetypal images and drives. It is the expression of the male's hidden aspiration for the female's divine power of creation. It represents a confused attempt to transcend the deep-seated fear of one's own nature as a living, breathing entity condemned to death from birth. It embodies a misguided and utterly useless search for the eternal, motivated only by one's amnesia of one's own true nature. The fable of artificial consciousness is the imaginary bandaid sought to cover the engineer's wound of ignorance.

I have been this engineer.

Beyond Reason

By Aditya Prasad

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum and voted for publication by forum members. All opinions expressed are those of the author.)

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup of original artwork, hereby released into the public domain.

It is very hard to know at any moment whether or not you are dreaming. I taught myself at age 4 to dream lucidly, and have had over a thousand lucid dreams since, and I still find myself frequently generating false positives when I investigate whether or not I'm awake.

On the surface, this might seem absurd. Surely when green dragons are flying around your living room, and you even have the presence of mind to check whether you're dreaming, you cannot fail to discover that you are.

And yet, this kind of thing happens all the time for me. Even if my suspicion is aroused by oddities and absurdities, it is apparently trivial for my mind to generate a perfectly satisfying explanation and convince me to move right along. Oh, those are just my pet dragons. I thought they were blue for a sec.

It seems to me that all the cognitive faculties I use to arrive at certainty about my world can be hijacked without consent, knowledge, or even suspicion. One cannot simply think his way out of schizophrenia or confabulation.

The illusion of continuity of experience can be provided by false memories. The ability to reason properly can be tinkered with simply by the mind producing satisfaction with its answers. External validation can be supplied by imaginary characters.

If this is beginning to remind you of solipsism or the Matrix, it's for good reason. Anyone who thinks about these issues long enough realizes that indeed, there is no rational conclusion one can be absolutely certain about. None at all.

Or more precisely, although one is likely absolutely certain about a great many things, such certainty is not necessarily indicative of any underlying truth. If otherwise intelligent people can be certain that they do not have an arm that they actually do, is it such a stretch to imagine that I could tinker with your brain in such a way that makes you conclude that 1 + 1 = 3 – and fail to understand, or even be surprised, when you cannot find a hole in your proof of the fact?

So great a thinker as Descartes is supposed to have locked himself in a room until this epiphany dawned on him. Certainty is just another feeling – one that serves to let us navigate our lives without seeming like we're on an endless acid trip.

But there's another kind of certainty. One that does not find its basis in reasoning at all. It is the certainty that conscious experience seems to be taking place. Though its nature or cause may be unclear, it is simply not meaningful to deny that something seems to be happening. After all, if one tried to deny it, one would be doing so using this very capacity itself.

Now, it's not hard to come up with a seemingly rational counterargument: a computer could print out "I deny that I am experiencing anything" and indeed not be experiencing anything, for all we know. And if you are in fact not conscious, none of what I'm about to say will be convincing. I am sorry for the loss of those readers.

So instead of resorting to reason, I'd like to invite you to simply sit for 30 seconds and experience the flavor of the certainty of experience itself. No doubt there will be a million thoughts vying for attention and drowning out this obvious realization, but try to ignore those for now. See if the recognition that you are experiencing requires any reasoning.

The more one practices, the more one comes to get a feel for how this differs from rational certainty. More interestingly, one gets a feel for how it provides the very basis for that capacity. The feeling of a thought being true, or false, or uncertain, or funny, or boring, are all simply modulations of this faculty of experience. The very process of reasoning itself is just one more manifestation of this faculty.

To which the rational mind typically responds: "Yeah, and? So what? I can explain it all. Some neurons in the prefrontal cortex fire like so, and bam. Experience, reasoning, and the whole shebang."

It somehow conveniently forgets that, as with all rational conclusions, it might conceivably be wrong – without any hint of irony. If I insert it into another circumstance (say, a dream in which heads are filled with jelly beans instead of neurons), it would just as triumphantly declare an "explanation" in terms of whatever conditions it finds itself in. "Yes, conscious experience is caused by jelly beans in the skull. So what?"

That is the mind's job, after all, and it does it well. But it has been my experience that as this second faculty (of direct experience) reveals itself more and more, the more the reasoning mind begins to sense some disingenuity in trying to explain it with its limited resources.

After all, if one tries to explain a certainty (experience) in terms of uncertainties (neurons or jelly beans), shouldn't one at least be up front about it?

Which is not to deny the mind its place. Indeed, in this dream that you and I currently seem to be sharing, the capacity for consciousness may be consistently correlated with the firing of specific neurons – and nothing but reasoning would reveal that to us.

But it would be a tragic mistake to conclude that this tells the whole story. Indeed, mystics across the ages have urged us to follow the rabbit hole deeper. What is the nature of this fundamentally certain capacity that we carry with us – quite apart from its mundane (in the most literal sense of the word) "explanations"? Is there something to be gained from meeting it on its own terms, without the rational mind as an arbiter and intermediary?

To find out, they invite us to spend at least as much time in this other mode as we do in reasoning mode. Why? I'm afraid I won't be able to give you a satisfying reason.

Copyright © 2015 by Aditya Prasad. Published with permission.

The Reality Nervous System

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

"When you see the world you see God. There is no seeing God apart from the world. Beyond the world to see God is to be God."*
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

One of the most important ideas discussed in my new book Brief Peeks Beyond, particularly in Chapters 2 and 9, is the notion that empirical reality – all things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste – can be understood as a nervous system. This may sound extremely counterintuitive at first, even absurd, but it elegantly solves many of the most important unanswered questions in science and philosophy today, such as the nature of matter and the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness.' The simplicity and parsimony of this interpretation of reality, together with its surprising explanatory power, render it nearly self-evident in my view. The point is so important that I decided to summarize it in this essay, so to give you a brief sense of its logic and perhaps encourage you to explore it further in the book.

I will lay down the argument point by point, trying to keep it as simple as possible. Further elaboration can be found in the book. Therefore, before you conclude that the interpretation below doesn't address important empirical elements, please give me the benefit of the doubt and peruse the book.
  1. What do we know about a human brain and what do we merely assume about it? We know that measurable electrochemical activity in and across neurons correlates with contents of consciousness, like our perceptions and emotions. Many of us then assume that, because of these correlations, the brain somehow generates consciousness, even though nobody can explain how. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the assumptions and stick to what we know. We are then left with a system that has, in the words of Lee Smolin, external and internal aspects: the external aspect is the brain we can measure, while the internal aspect consists of our conscious feelings and perceptions [Smolin, L. (2013). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 270]. The external aspect isn't necessarily the cause of the internal aspect, but simply what the internal aspect looks like when viewed from outside.
  2. However, the brain is merely an arrangement of so-called material particles like, say, a crystal. So unless we can make the case that the internal aspect – that is, consciousness – is associated exclusively with the particular structure of the brain, we have no alternative but to infer that the whole material universe should also have an internal aspect (this is a serious and reasonable speculation that Smolin himself has engaged in). As it turns out, honest scientists and philosophers know that we can't even coherently conceive of – let alone explain  how consciousness can come out of any particular material structure, unless it is inherently associated with all matter [Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature. In: Stich, S. and Warfield, F. eds. Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 102-142]. Therefore, let's bite the bullet and say that the whole empirical world has an internal aspect, not only brains. The visible universe is then a kind of cosmic brain: a nervous system with unfathomable inner life.  Indeed, a striking comparison published in The New York Times a few years ago shows the similarity between the structure of the universe at the largest scales and biological nervous systems (see the figure linked below). A more thorough study has shown that these similarities go way beyond mere appearances. From this perspective, the quote that opened this essay is a simple statement of fact, not a convoluted spiritual metaphor.

  3. Does that mean that a crystal is conscious? Not any more than an individual neuron in a person's brain can be said to be conscious. From Brief Peeks Beyond: "If you daydream about a tropical holiday location with trees, waterfalls and singing birds, all those images will correlate with particular, measurable patterns of activated neurons in your head. Theoretically, a neuroscientist could identify different groups of neurons in your brain and say: group A correlates with a tree; group B with a waterfall; group C with a singing bird; etc. But, based on your direct experience of what it feels like to imagine this scenario, is there anything it is like to be group A in isolation? Is there anything it is like to be group C in and of itself? Or is there only something it is like to be the whole daydreaming you – your whole brain – imagining trees, waterfalls and birds as component parts of an integrated scenario? Do you experience multiple separate streams of imagination – one for trees, another for waterfalls and another for birds – or only one stream wherein trees, waterfalls and birds are all together? Do you see the point? Unless there is dissociation, there is nothing it’s like to be separate groups of neurons in a person’s brain. We can only speak of the holistic stream of imagination of the person as a whole. For exactly the same reason that there is nothing it is like to be an isolated group of neurons in a person’s brain, there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object" (pp. 44-45). Clearly, there is no reason to say that a rock is conscious the way you and I are. The universe as a whole has an external and an internal aspect, the rock being simply a segment of its external aspect, like an isolated neuron is a segment of a brain. Unless we have good reasons to think otherwise, we must assume that –  just as our own inner life – the internal aspect of the universe is a unified stream of consciousness; 'God's dream,' so to speak. The empirical world we perceive is like a 'scan of God's brain' while dreaming. Creation is the external aspect of 'God's' creative mental activity, just like an active brain is the external aspect of a person's inner life.
  4. But wait: you and I seem to have entirely separate streams of consciousness. My inner life is not the same as yours, neither do they seem to be connected in any fundamental way. Moreover, neither my nor your inner life has the presumed cosmic scale of 'God's inner life.' Why is that? As I explain in detail in the book, a living organism is the external aspect – the outside image – of a dissociative process in 'God's mind.' Dissociative processes are well known in psychology. They cause a particular segment of our stream of consciousness to separate from the rest of the stream. This separation happens through different forms of amnesia or obfuscation of mental contents. For instance, a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) has multiple 'alters,' or identities. Each alter is seemingly separate from the others and often unaware of the others' existence, unless told by another person. What I am thus saying is that 'God' has DID and we are Its alters. Indeed, I am saying that every living being is what a dissociated alter looks like in the 'scan of God's brain' we call empirical reality. That we can identify biology in the universe is a diagnostic confirmation of 'God's DID' just as the identification of a spot on a brain scan is a diagnostic confirmation of, say, an aneurism. (By this I don't mean to convey any negative connotations, such as to suggest that life is a disease; the metaphor breaks down at this point.)
  5. The elegance of this view is that it dispenses entirely with the need to postulate anything other than the obvious: consciousness itself. We do not need to postulate a whole material universe outside consciousness anymore. Empirical reality is merely the outside image – the external aspect – of the mental activity of a cosmic consciousness, while body-brains are merely the outside image of dissociated segments of this cosmic consciousness. And what is a body-brain but something we can see, touch, measure; something with the qualities of experience? Indeed, the empirical world is the experience, by an alter, of the rest of the stream of consciousness outside the alter. It is dissociation that creates the duality between internal and external aspects. But this duality does not imply or require anything outside experience: the external aspects are themselves experiences; experiences of alters. As explained in Chapter 9 of Brief Peeks Beyond, 'everything that currently motivates us to believe in a world outside consciousness can and will be understood as the effects of mental processes outside our particular alter, which we witness from a second-person perspective.' (p. 207)
So there you go: a simple, parsimonious and, dare I say, elegant and powerful explanation for the most vexing questions facing science and philosophy today. Most significantly, this explanation is not arrived at by adding new theoretical entities or postulates, but precisely by getting rid of unnecessary and inflationary theoretical entities and postulates that have clouded our understanding of reality for centuries now. It's time we cleaned up the house and restored reason and empirical honesty to our ontology. It's time we saw a postulated material world outside consciousness – which, absurdity of absurdities, allegedly generates consciousness – for what it is: the tortuous fiction of confused minds.

* Nisargadatta Maharaj, S. (1973). I Am That. Mumbai, India: Chetana, p. 58. The italics are mine.


Muddy sea monster reveals the meaning of life

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Someone very close to me – a person intimately connected to the matrix of life and nature, as expressed in her highly symbolic art – had a dream this morning that I found extraordinarily significant for reasons I'll soon explain. In her words:
I remember being chased by a huge mud monster that came to the shore from the sea. It would eat anything in its path: bushes, plants and eventually all humanity, because it was heading inland. I and my colleagues managed to run and find shelter in some sort of laboratory, where we would be temporarily out of the path of the monster. While in the lab, I and another woman were supposed to take a test (as in a school test), but we had to choose the test ourselves. I assumed that the more exciting and difficult the chosen test was, the higher the grade could be. I found an interesting crossword puzzle with images, but I thought it would be too easy and not the type of test I was expected to choose. At some point, I dropped the test and left the safe zone of the laboratory, moving to another, non-secure area that was in the path of the monster. I did it because I wanted to save a child who was left there, in harm's way. There was a constant feeling of fear, despair and hopelessness.
So to help you understand the amazing significance I see in this dream – its symbolic portrayal of the meaning of life and of our present historical nexus – I will share with you a possible Jungian interpretation of it. I'm not an analyst, but have been a dedicated student of analytical psychology for several years now.

Spiritual Protection, by Selene's Art.

Dream interpretation

The monster comes from the sea, which is a symbol of what Jung called the 'collective unconscious': a deep, vast, but obfuscated region of the psyche shared by all humanity. Being a monster, it represents a threatening, animal-like, instinctive, unthinking aspect of ourselves. Its muddy character links it back to the ground, to something primordial, earthy, intrinsic to our animal nature. In the terminology of analytical psychology, the monster represents the collective shadow of humanity: a negative and destructive force within us all that we normally do not acknowledge.

The land represents our ordinary waking state of consciousness, which is where the dreamer's ego dwells. For as long as the monster was in the sea, not only was the dreamer's ego unaware of its existence, it also felt safe ('ignorance is bliss,' as the saying goes). But by leaving the sea and coming onshore, the monster penetrates the realm of self-reflective awareness, thereby directly threatening not only the dreamer, but all humanity. 'There was a constant feeling of fear, despair and hopelessness,' she says. The dream's message here is that the dreamer is becoming increasingly aware, in her waking life, of the destructive potential of humanity.

The monster 'would eat anything in its path.' This is an evocative symbol of humanity's compulsive, addictive, unthinking extraction and consumption of resources for selfish short-term satisfaction, as well as of the environmental destruction it leaves behind. The monster is insatiable and never gives any consideration to what it is doing. It is interested only in fulfilling its primal desires (symbolized by eating voraciously). As the shadow of humanity, the monster represents our own behavior towards the Earth today and its ultimate consequences for ourselves. The dream is unambiguous on this point: 'eventually all humanity' will be consumed.

But the dreamer's ego finds refuge in a laboratory. Naturally, a laboratory is a place where research – inquiry – is done; a place where we discover the secrets of life and nature. The lab has a secure zone that is temporally out of the destructive path of the monster. This suggests that humanity still has time to figure something out before the destruction is complete and irreversible. There is still hope, but we cannot waste any time.

The dreamer was going to undergo a test. This implicitly suggests that she could be admitted as a staff member of the laboratory if she passed the test, thereby becoming a researcher. But the dreamer had the freedom to choose the test herself, which suggests that she could automatically become a researcher simply by choosing one that she knew she could pass. In other words, everyone is qualified to do research simply by proving his or her own skills, no matter how simple or insignificant these skills may appear to be. Every contribution is helpful and important. That the dreamer felt she had to choose an 'exciting and difficult' test betrays her unnecessarily severe expectations of herself, based on a mistaken notion of self-worth. It also betrays her need to meet external expectations, instead of simply focusing on what she can naturally – and therefore effortlessly – contribute to the research effort.

However, before she could take the test, the dreamer felt an irresistible urge to save a child who was in harm's way, despite having to risk her own life in the process. This symbolizes a choice between living from the head (taking the test and doing research) or living from the heart (surrendering to empathy and the expression of compassion). The dreamer's choice was clear. Saving the child was a symbol of our potential to save the whole of humanity by pursuing the path of the heart. 'If any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind,' says The Holy Quran (5:32).

Seclusion, by Selene's Art.

The meaning of life according to the dream

In my new book, Brief Peeks Beyond, I write:
Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling and understanding. All else exists only as connotative devices: ‘tricks’ to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and insights unfolding within. (p. 184)
The dream symbolizes the path of understanding with the laboratory. The path of feeling is symbolized by the dreamer's impulsive, self-sacrificial act of rescuing the endangered child/humanity.

More importantly, the dream shows that, once a species emerges from the sea of instinct onto the shore of lucid self-reflection, the clock starts ticking on a natural time-bomb. On the one hand, self-reflection gives us the unique opportunity to understand life, self and nature through inquiry (symbolized by passing the test and becoming a researcher in the laboratory), as well as to become cognizant of, and therefore able to effectively express, our feelings (symbolized by saving the child/humanity). On the other hand, self-reflection also gives us the Faustian power – through technology – to overindulge in our selfish primal desires, to the point of destroying the Earth. The drive towards runaway consumption, symbolized by the mud monster, is an inherent part of being alive. Self-reflective life is then a race between self-understanding and self-expression on the one hand, and self-destruction by overindulgence on the other. Therefore, we must grab the opportunity to pursue understanding and express our feelings while there is time. The window of opportunity is limited by the very nature of self-reflective life and its associated collective shadow. The human species is a desperate gamble on the part of the Earth. The responsibility to make it count rests squarely with us.

By becoming self-reflectively aware of our own feelings, we get the unique chance to partner with them and express them lucidly in the world. Instinctive animals also have feelings, but do not know that they have them, remaining fully immersed and trapped in their instinctive flow. As such, animals cannot work with and express their feelings in quite the same way we humans can. By and large, they do not create art, express love and compassion, or seem to experience empathy at the level we do because of our ability to self-reflect. The uniquely lucid emotional life of humans is a vehicle for the expression of whatever it is we are.

Similarly, while immersed in the flow of instinct, we cannot hope to comprehend whatever it is we are. We remain slaves of our own nature, lacking any level of self-understanding that could lead to inner peace and completion (which Jung called 'individuation'). As I wrote in my earlier book, Why Materialism Is Baloney,
consensus reality is nothing but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of mind. ... What is it trying to say? A job loss, a new romantic relationship, a sudden illness, a promotion, the death of a pet, a major personal success, a friend in need... What is the underlying meaning of it all in the context of our lives? What are all these events saying about our true selves? These are the questions that we must constantly confront in a metaphorical world. We must look upon life in the same way that many people look upon their nightly dreams: when they wake up, they don’t attribute literal truth to the dream they just had. To do so would be tantamount to closing one’s eyes to what the dream was trying to convey. Instead, they ask themselves: ‘what did it really mean?’ They know that the dream wasn’t a direct representation of its meaning, but a subtle metaphorical suggestion of something else. And so may waking reality be. As such, it is this ineffable something else that – I believe – we must try to find in life. (pp. 206-207)
It is only through our ability to self-reflect that we can hope to interpret the metaphor of life, thereby finding this 'something else.' Interpreting life entails an effort of inquiry. The dreamer's laboratory represented humanity's limited opportunity to inquire – so to arrive at a hermeneutics of life and cosmos – before the mud monster of our collective shadow destroys everything. The clock is ticking. Again from Why Materialism Is Baloney:
We have been deputized by mind at large to look back at itself and try to make something out of what we see. For all we know, we’re the only game in town as far as being able to do it. But what do we do instead? We look away! We don’t like to be confronted with the darkness within ourselves, so we numb our psyches with every conceivable distraction, making sure that the ‘unconscious’ remains ‘unconscious,’ instead of being brought into the field of self-reflectiveness. We don’t like to be confronted with the darkness we see in the empirical world either, so we tell ourselves ‘That’s not me!’ And by disidentifying with it, we eliminate any chance we might otherwise have of making something out of all the suffering and evil around us. The tragedy we are faced with is that all this suffering might be for nothing, since the ones deputized to interpret it are looking away instead of trying to make sense of the metaphor. Instead of asking ‘All this darkness is part of me too, so what does it mean?’ we watch gossip shows on television. (p. 211)

The Womb, by Selene's Art.

Jung's 'collective unconscious,' through the dreams it grants each of us every night, may be instinctively trying to bring our attention to our essential role in the play of existence, as well as to our limited window of opportunity to play this role. The dream that motivated this essay has convinced me of it. Human life may be the pinnacle of nature's greatest, perhaps most desperate gamble yet: a race between lucid self-understanding and self-expression on the one hand, and self-destruction on the other. We may be in for a photo-finish.